ISTANBUL—Misha, 40, an IT worker from Moscow, landed at the Istanbul airport on Wednesday evening—which he said was the soonest he could get away from Russia to avoid the possibility of fighting in Ukraine.
Lugging a large gray suitcase and looking for the nearest bank machine, he said 70 percent of his fellow passengers on the flight to Turkey were men. He believed that if he stayed in Russia, he’d have a 50-50 chance of conscription after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 men on Sept. 21.
“If I would go [to the military], first of all I could be killed, secondly, I would have to kill and, thirdly, I admire Ukraine. I think they are gorgeous, brave people,” Misha, who didn’t want to give his last name out of fear of retribution from authorities, told The Daily Beast.
He bought his ticket the day that Putin went on television to make the mobilization announcement. There was one ticket a day earlier, but it was double the price, Misha said.
Men have been fleeing by land and air from Russia after Putin’s announcement—but some countries neighboring Russia have said they would not welcome Russians fleeing conscription.
Latvia’s foreign minister stated that his country would not let them in due to security concerns. Lithuania’s foreign minister tweeted that his country would not be, “granting asylum to those who are simply running from responsibility. Russians should stay and fight. Against Putin.”
The European Union, which Latvia and Lithuania are members of, guarantees the right to seek asylum for anyone who is “fleeing persecution or serious harm in their own country.”
Masha said he protested against his government in previous years but is too afraid now because Russian police have become more violent. Those who want to block him and his fellow citizens simply because of their nationality are not much different from Russia's leadership, he told The Daily Beast.
“Putin thinks that Ukrainians are [second-class] people,” he said. “You cannot sort people by nation.”
Meanwhile, Russians have been flocking to Turkey where they don’t need a visa and can still get direct flights. But tickets have been selling out days or a week in advance since the mobilization call and have skyrocketed in price. On Wednesday, the earliest ticket available for Moscow to Istanbul with the Turkish budget carrier Pegasus was on Monday for $1,500.
Andrey, 33, an Android developer from Moscow who also arrived at the Istanbul airport Wednesday evening, said he would not be returning to Russia because he feared he would be forced to join the military.
“I don’t want to die,” he told The Daily Beast.
Andrey, who did not want his last name used because he was afraid of the Russian government, said he bought his ticket a couple of weeks ago for a trip. When the mobilization announcement came, he decided he would not return home. He’s now planning on staying in Turkey for two months and was considering eventually going to Serbia because he doesn’t need a visa to enter the country.
Four Russian men who spoke to The Daily Beast in Istanbul about staying out of Russia because they feared conscription had similar profiles. They were IT workers, meaning they could work remotely, and ranged in age from 30 to 40. While none of them thought what Putin was doing was right, they were too afraid to join protests and believed they wouldn’t lead to his ouster.
“Police have a carte blanche, they can do anything they want,” said Pavel, 30, who left Moscow the day Putin made his announcement and is now living in Istanbul. He feared his time as a medic serving in the Russian military 12 years ago meant he would likely be called to join the war. “My wife told me that ‘You need to leave’ and I agreed instantly,” he told The Daily Beast.
Pavel said he didn’t believe protests would change the situation in his country, citing the hundreds of thousands of Belarusians who failed to get President Alexander Lukashenko out of office after an election that the opposition said was rigged.
A 34-year-old IT worker also from Moscow was too scared to even provide a nickname. Sitting in a hotel in central Istanbul with large purple and orange suitcases next to him, he said he had already been out of Russia with his wife on a business trip when the call for mobilization was made. “I was frightened to death because my future in this country was ruined in one minute,” he said.
They decided to stay out of Russia until the war ended in Ukraine, admitting it could be days or years.
He laughed when asked what he would say to those who believe that Russians should stay in their country and fight against Putin, believing protests would not help change Russia’s leadership. “One man can do nothing [against] the whole system, the state, the machine,” he said.
But that’s not stopping people in the Russian region of Dagestan from taking to the streets. Dozens of arrests were reportedly made following a protest against mobilization and videos posted on social media have shown residents confronting authorities.
Misha, the 40-year-old IT worker, said he believed it was people who had to stay in the country, like those in Dagestan, who would change Russia.
As for his own future, he had no plans beyond staying in Istanbul for the next several days and said he felt the same shock from the mobilization announcement as he did when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“How do you feel when something unimaginable happens? Then again. Twice in a row.” he said. “I don’t have the right words for that.”